Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Season 7 Episode 9
“As I Have Always Been”
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. delivers its version of a time look story with Daisy and Coulson working to stop the Zephyr from being destroyed.
Sooner or later pretty much every sci-fi or fantasy show does a time loop episode. It’s one of those staples of genre storytelling that’s just fun to play around with. Groundhog Day is a celebrated movie, Edge of Tomorrow is a great action take on the concept and various TV time loops are among the stronger entries of those shows. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Supernatural and Star Trek: The Next Generation are some of my personal favourites with Star Trek: Discovery also occupying that list. The danger with this concept is that it’s difficult to do a unique take on it and even more difficult to maintain a sense of urgency while keeping the audience interested.
The setup in this case is that the Zephyr is caught in something called a “Time Storm”; what that is exactly doesn’t matter as all we need to know is that it will eventually result in certain death for everyone aboard. Daisy and Coulson are the characters that remember previous loops and lead the charge on solving the problem. In a really nice touch, resetting the loop doesn’t fully reset the situation; with each loop the Zephyr gets closer to the vortex meaning there is a finite amount of time to solve the problem. This was a great way of creating urgency due to the knowledge that time is actually running out despite the fact that it’s repeating. The limitations associated with the limited time in each loop only serve to heighten this.
This episode takes a self aware approach which makes sense as these characters exist in a world where science fiction exists which cuts down on wasted time explaining what’s going on and having the characters understand. Daisy works out that she’s in a time loop fairly early on once she realises she remembers characters saying and doing things that they haven’t said or done yet. This gets things moving very quickly and shifts the focus to the problem at hand. Coulson also remembers the loops and the unconfirmed theory as to why those two do and others don’t is that they were both in regenerative pods. The why doesn’t matter but it makes sense that they would look for some explanation even if it’s ultimately unimportant.
Many time loop stories focus on a mystery that needs to be solved and uses the concept to explore different angles of a situation. Different loops focus on what different characters are doing in that short time period and the character or characters aware of the loop gather that knowledge to be applied in a way that helps them escape it. This particular episode specialises in the dead ends with various details that seem important at first but end up being no help in the grand scheme of things. There’s a brief interlude involving Elena that offers a strong character beat from her but doesn’t end up contributing to the solution for example. It could be argued that time in the episode runtime shouldn’t be wasted on things like that but it’s great to have Daisy or Coulson bear witness to a specific moment that will enrich their understanding of that character with them being the only one to remember it. It adds a different dimension to that connection which makes the moment incredibly worthwhile.
Eventually the investigation leads them to the knowledge that Simmons has an implant that suppresses certain memories and it is decided that in order to solve this problem the implant needs to be removed so that Simmons can access her suppressed memories to tell them the solution. Unfortunately early attempts to remove the implant result in Simmons being mysteriously killed as well as anyone near her. Her early deaths are the result of sabotage creating a gas leak which prompts Daisy to do some sleuthing in subsequent loops to identify the saboteur. Coulson eventually stumbles onto the fact that it must be Enoch because he has programming that can activate in certain circumstances which makes him something of a sleeper agent. From there it becomes known that Simmons programmed him to ensure that the implant stays in her brain at all costs; even if that cost involves him doing harm to the team. The great thing about this episode is that the problem continues to evolve and every solution creates a new obstacle to overcome which helps immeasurably in preventing the events becoming stale. The time loop itself is a barrier to success but the story itself keeps changing as different information is learned.
Dealing with Enoch as an antagonist is something that takes a great deal of trial and error. Having Sousa stall him doesn’t work, approaching him with various configurations of the team doesn’t work, throwing the whole team at him doesn’t work and so on. The episode does an excellent job mining comedy from this particular issue. The variations on “let’s try this” followed by different configurations of characters badly injured after a failed attempt to fight Enoch is hilarious. A particular highlight is the complete lack of compassion over the fact that Deke has died which makes sense because Daisy knows a reset is imminent but becomes funnier when considering that Deke is something of a laughing stock a lot of the time. It’s the perfect reduction in tension at a key point in the episode.
Enoch being programmed to stop the removal of Simmons’ implant at all costs feeds into the questions around artificial life that the entire season has been driving at. Most of those questions have been explored through Coulson who is aware that he’s a machine programmed to think and act like the original Coulson but Enoch has been around most of this time as well. The major difference between the two characters is that Enoch is far more comfortable with the fact that he’s a machine and doesn’t aspire to be anything more than that. This doesn’t mean he hasn’t learned or developed in any way as he has managed to forge meaningful friendships with Fitz and the rest of the team but at his core he remains emotionless which means that there is always that distance between him and the others. This allows him to become an antagonist when the need arises just as it did in this episode while also being an invaluable ally.
Simmons experiences a flood of emotion when the implant is removed and her memories return, specifically in relation to Fitz. It isn’t explicitly stated what the emotional reaction means but my belief is that Fitz is already dead and a major motivation for Simmons to remove her memory of that is to enable her to carry on with this mission without being heavily impacted by her grief. I could be totally wrong and Fitz will be revealed alive and well in one of the few remaining episodes but signs seem to point in that direction for now. It’s still a frustrating plot and has lingered on longer than it should have. Elizabeth Henstridge completely sells the moment but the detail of the story being told just isn’t strong enough.
The Sousa and Daisy connection grows through this. There’s a really great scene where Sousa explains why he respects her so much and it has to do with his personal admiration for people who are always focused on the greater good with self sacrifice being their first instinct. He has Daisy completely figured out on a high level in referencing her desire to be alone at times but always winding up among friends and her approach to problem solving where failure just isn’t an option. He sees himself as the person that people like Daisy need; someone to offer support and do whatever needs done in pursuit of that problem being solved. He has come to care for her very quickly and considers it a privilege to put himself in that position. The next loop proves that point when he unquestionably offers his assistance the instant Daisy asks for it. This makes the kiss Daisy initiates feel earned. It isn’t preserved because there is one final loop after that but it’s all but confirmed that the romantic angle between Daisy and Sousa will be explored further. It’s a strong relationship so far and works really well especially after the conversation that Daisy will remember.
This episode does a great job asking some complicated questions about what life is and what it means in the context of being an artificial life form. This is done through Enoch and Coulson in very different ways. The previous episode had Coulson wrestle with the notion of his own existence in that he still has no idea if his feelings are real or simply an advanced imitation of real feelings. To the outside observer there’s no real difference as LMD Coulson acts exactly like the original but from Coulson’s point of view there are a lot of scary questions in his mind that he can’t resolve. It’s easier for everyone else to largely ignore these and call him Coulson as if nothing has changed but the reality is that the original Coulson died and the current one is a very advanced recreation. The recreation is so advanced that even it/he’s unsure exactly what he is. In this episode Coulson wonders if he actually has a soul or if what he thinks of as a soul is simply advanced programming; Daisy has no doubt that he does have a soul but she’s hardly an authority on this and it’s clearly something she has chosen to believe in order to resolve this difficult philosophical debate.
It’s a question that will likely never be answered but the tragedy is that Coulson will have an eternity to mull it over. He sees the time loop as a metaphor for his own existence as he will have to go through the rest of his life watching those he cares about die because he as a machine won’t age but the people around him will. Whether his feelings are genuine or artificial recreations of feelings that Coulson would have in a given situation is irrelevant in this scenario as they have the same impact. This is how Coulson would react to immortality if he was granted it and he sees it as a curse rather than a blessing. Nothing can be said that will make this any better because short of his own destruction there’s no way for him to escape the inevitability of watching those he cares about grow old and die. Artificial or not, the LMD Coulson experience those emotions and his programming has him react to them in a very real way so even though there are endless debates to be had on what makes a real emotion but LMD Coulson doesn’t know the difference and can’t turn off the way he feels whether it be programming or not. It’s fascinatingly tragic and Clark Gregg completely sells it.
The approach with Enoch is very different but goes over the same ground. It turns out the only way to solve the problem is for him to rip out his heart and let the team use it to fix the Time Drive. This means that Enoch will permanently deactivate or in other words; he’ll die. He has some time before this happens to contemplate what that means and reflect on his life. Daisy and Coulson stay with him while everyone else works to fix the Zephyr. Enoch talks about how much time he has spent alone and how everything changed when he met Fitz because that taught him that forging meaningful connections was worthwhile. This extends to the rest of team who have become important to him. Enoch’s final moments continue these larger questions around the validity of programmed emotion. He mentions feeling anxiety about the end of his own existence which is likely a programmed emotional response but is very real to Enoch. His anxiety is cause by him wondering what lies beyond death and the awareness that when he crosses over he will do so alone. Daisy and Coulson stay with him until the end because they value him but once the end comes they are unable to follow him.
Coulson tries to reassure him by telling him that the feeling is a temporary one for the person dying but those left behind have to deal with that loss and live the rest of their life without the person that they lost. Coulson’s view is that dying is hardest on the living and there’s definitely some truth to that though it’s unknown what lies beyond death, especially for an artificial life form so as far as anyone knows those mourning the loss have a more difficult task than the one lost. Contemplating non existence is impossible so many believe that something must lie beyond death but it remains true that moving on with life after losing someone you care about is far from easy. Enoch’s legacy will be that the team will miss him and will struggle to continue without him. It’s a really beautiful scene that takes an understated approach to the loss of Enoch that is perfectly handled. It’s a quiet and sombre moment that allows the viewer to be immersed in the emotion of the scene, It’s powerful, effective and makes Enoch’s death matter in a way that ties into the larger questions being asked.
Enoch’s death brings with it some important foreshadowing. Talk of endings causes him to confirm that the people will live but the team won’t as the mission they are currently on is their final mission together. There’s a tragic edge to those words which suggests the team splitting up isn’t what they want but it’s left vague as to what happens. It’s also possible that this can change as we’ve seen throughout the season but this works on a meta level because we as viewers know this is the final season so we’re preparing for the end. Following this conversation Daisy and Coulson are as well which will probably prompt them to try and change it. This likely means there will be scenarios cropping up over the coming episodes where one of them will say something like “Do you think this is what Enoch meant?” and then proceed on that basis. One thing that definitely comes across strongly is that these characters have found a family in one another and the team is what allows them to move forward in their own lives because the support they receive from everyone around them is exactly what they all need. It’s acknowledged in this episode and in many others that their lives are more chaotic than most so having that support structure is necessary. The prospect of losing that familial connection is unthinkable for Daisy and Coulson so Enoch’s prophetic words are a cause of deep concern for them. There are only four episodes remaining and now two of the characters are aware of that on some level which heightens the tension as they are preparing for an ending just as the viewers are.
An excellent episode that uses the time loop idea brilliantly while exploring large scale existential questions and supplying really powerful emotional moments. Time loops are a common storytelling device in genre fiction for a variety of reasons but it’s very easy to get them wrong. This episode takes a self aware approach since all the characters are familiar with the idea with them living in a world where science fiction exists. Taking this approach means cutting down on the time spent repeatedly explaining the situation meaning that the bulk of the episode is spent developing the plot. There is tension attached as certain death grows ever closer despite the time loop so the urgency is established and maintained throughout. The plot is constantly moving forward as things are ruled out and discovered so there’s a lot of story being told within the various loops which keeps things from becoming stale. Daisy and Coulson are the only characters to remember the loops but they share moments with different characters that enhance their understanding of who they interact with even if the other party won’t remember it. It develops the characters while remaining consistent with the rules established.
Coulson and Enoch are used to explore large scale questions about life and existence through their particular perspectives. Coulson is still wrestling with the nature of his own existence in terms of whether his feelings are real or if he actually has a soul. It’s not an easy question to answer but the problem is compounded by the fact that he’s aware he’s a machine and whether his feelings are real or not he will still have to deal with the fact that everyone he cares about will age and die as he lives on. It’s a really fascinating conversation and Clark Gregg plays it brilliantly. Enoch’s death is incredibly moving and explores this idea differently. He ruminates on death and the idea that he will cease to function while everyone else around him continues on. Once again it’s an existential question about what lies beyond death while also acknowledging that it is far from easy for those left behind when someone dies. He also talks about this mission being the final one which has a tragic edge to it on both a meta and in universe level. The team have found a family with one another so the idea that this will not continue is unthinkable for Daisy and Coulson. The Daisy and Sousa connection continues to develop in interesting ways. Their conversation where Sousa identifies Daisy as a selfless hero type and himself as the one who offers them the support they need to help them continue on is excellent and shows a real understanding of the sort of person Daisy is on his part. The kiss that Daisy initiates feels entirely earned even though it is lost in the next time loop and confirms the development of a romantic connection. The only misstep in the episode is the continued lack of information surrounding the mystery of Fitz. He is still absent without explanation with Simmons’ reaction upon regaining her memories suggesting that something terrible happened to him. This mystery has lingered for too long and has consistently failed to pay off properly.
- an excellent use of the time loop storytelling concept
- efficient plot movement that constantly varies despite the reset
- taking time to develop the characters and their relationships within the loop
- Coulson asking large scale existential questions and his perspective on what his life has become
- Enoch’s death allowing for exploration of larger questions around death
- foreshadowing of the end through Enoch’s death
- Daisy and Sousa’s developing connection
- the mystery surrounding Fitz’ absence consistently failing to be interesting
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